Flash-fiction: In Every Age

<a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_karaidel'>karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo</a>Cantor Sylvia never expected to be playing the guitar and singing ancient songs in the lounge of a starship, but then, she’d never expected to be on a starship in the first place. She was too old, they said. She wouldn’t last the trip from Earth to Centaurus.

And yet, here she was, sitting in the common lounge, staring out the huge window – viewports -they called them viewports –  at the streaking stars, her great-grandmother’s acoustic guitar resting against a belly that had seen a few too many latkes and maybe not enough salad in her lifetime, sharing the old songs with kids who would never remember that they came from Earth.

Actually, the Goldberg twins had been born under the dome at Curiosity Village, on Mars, and little Rachel Levi had grown up at Luna Colony. Earth might be in their blood, in their DNA, but it wasn’t where they were from. Not the way she was.

She played the chord again, and saw the children gathered around her focus their attention. And why not? They’d grown up with digital instruments: violins and cellos that relied on computer chips for their tone, guitars that made their sound through a wireless amplifier, and pianos that could be rolled into a cylinder the size of a zip-top sandwich bag. Her guitar didn’t have any chips, and it couldn’t be made smaller. It was wire and wood and care and love and history, and its lines were the only ones Sylvia had caressed since her beloved Harry had passed on five years before.

“I’m going to sing you an old song now,” she told them. “And you’re going to sing it with me. It’s in Hebrew. So, listen once, and then repeat.”

Mi yimalel gvurot Yisrael,
Otan mi yimne?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor
Goel ha’am!

Their singing was tentative at first, as their tongues learned the shapes of the long-ago language of their people, but they repeated the verse and then moved on to the next, learning the words a line at a time, and then singing them as a cohesive verse.

Shma!
Ba’yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’ze
Maccabi moshia u’fode
U’v’yameinu kol am Yisrael
Yitached yakum ve’yigael!

“But what does it mean?” Rachel asked.

Sylvia understood that what the little girl really meant was, Can we sing it in English?  She reached out and tugged one of the child’s strawberry-blonde braids. It was gentle. Harmless.  “My granddaughter used to ask me that, too,” she shared. “In English, it goes like this.”

Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Came to our aid.

The little girl wrinkled her nose. “I like it the other way better,” she said. “It’s prettier.”

Sylvia’s eyes twinkled, and her face stretched into a broad grin. “You know what?” she asked. “I like it both ways. Do you want to know why?”

“Yes, please.”

She changed her focus to include all the children. “When we sing it in Hebrew, we’re remembering the old stories, the country and the planet where all our families originated. And when we sing it in English, we’re making our stories and songs accessible to new generations. Someday, maybe we’ll sing these songs in languages Earth has never heard – or Mars or Centaurus either.

She didn’t really expect the children to respond, but when she looked up, she saw the reflection of their parents in the glass of the window – viewport – whatever – for they had gathered around behind her during the singing.

“Can we do it again?” Benjamin Goldberg wanted to know.

“Yes,” Sylvia said. “Yes, we can.”

They say space is silent. They say that you could scream your loudest inside a starship, and never be heard beyond the hull. But on that night, Sylvia was certain, if there were any creatures who existed outside the warm and oxygen-filled atmosphere of their vessel, they would have heard the voices of children and adults lifted in song.

 

Notes: Mi Yimalel is a traditional Jewish song, and was suggested by my friend Joy Plummer.  Photo Copyright: karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo

Cold as Ice

Empty Sky Photo by Maia Habegger on Unsplash

The winter ocean was dark blue and slate grey, and the waves were choppy and tipped with white, but Harmony didn’t feel the cold when she was swimming. And she was swimming, fast and purposefully, following the hiss of raindrops falling in the cold sea, and the rumbling voice she knew so well, except that this time, her thunder god, her Oskar, wasn’t merely calling her name. He was singing.

Vinterns frost har fångat min skog

I vitt ligger kullar och berg

Frusna fält där ängarna låg

Som bly ur himmelens färg  

The louder his voice became, the more intense was the precipitation. Rain was joined by sizzling sleet and hail that sounded like jingle bells.

She found him, sitting on a blanket of white fur that was spread across an ice floe. She knew he’d registered her arrival, but she let him continue the song, his voice vibrating through her and compelling her to move closer.

Vandrar kring i min vinters land

Längtande efter en värmande hand

Långt, långt bort är mitt paradis

Stelnad och kall är min själ

Som av is

Harmony folded her arms on the edge of the fur-covered ice, and rested her chin on top, keeping her tail in the water. Oskar met her eyes, and quirked his scraggly brows at her, hesitating for a moment.

“Keep singing,” she told him. “It sounds wistful; sing away the pain.”

The man who boomed when he spoke was so much softer when he was singing, that the siren in her couldn’t help but be drawn to him. She didn’t understand his language, but it didn’t matter. She comprehended the emotion.

Oskar acknowledged her request by falling back into tempo.

Tänd en glöd i min vinters land

Räck genom dimman en värmande hand

Visa väg till mitt paradis

Stelnad och kall är min själ

Som av is

 As the last note died away, so too did the ice and water that had been falling from the sky. Oskar patted the fur beside him, inviting Harmony to join him, and she accepted his wordless invitation, hoisting herself onto the ice.

He wrapped her in more white fur, pulling her back against his chest, and she relaxed against him, enjoying the warmth of his arms, of his body, of his breath tickling the back of her neck as he nuzzled her hair then lowered his head to place a gentle kiss on her shoulder.

She kept the tip of her tail-fin in the water. Later, she would allow herself to form legs – Oskar would keep her warm – but for now, just being held was enough. She stretched her head backward for an upside-down kiss.

They were quiet, just being together, for several minutes, and then Harmony rolled in Oskar’s arms and her tail melted away.

Their joining was mostly silent. Sighs and moans, soft murmurs, low rumbles. Words weren’t needed.

Afterward, nestled against Oskar’s chest once more, her delicate legs nestled between his more powerful ones, his arms crossed over her belly, her head tucked under his chin, she spoke again. “The song you were singing… what did it mean? Can you translate it into my language?”

The thunder god didn’t speak, but he hummed the tune once, and then again, and his voice flowed through her body and filled her as much as their joining had. He was silent for a moment. Then he wasn’t. Softly – well, softly for him – Oskar began to sing the song, in the language of the mermaids.

Winter’s frost has captured each tree

The hills are all covered with snow

Frozen fields wherever I see

And gray skies wherever I go

Wistful herself, Harmony interrupted the song. “I’d like to see fields someday. I’ve never been that far inland. Would you take me some time? It doesn’t have to be in winter.”

Oskar’s reply came in the way he held her tighter for a beat or two, then loosened his grip. He hesitated, likely translating the next part of his song for her, and then the music resumed.

Wandering in my Winter’s land

Longing once more for the warmth of her hand

Far away is my paradise

Bitterly cold is my soul

Cold as ice.

Under the furs, Harmony covered his hands with her own. “Paradise is right here,” she insisted. “Right now.” She turned in his embrace, kneeling between his legs so she could meet his eyes. “Paradise is every moment we have together. I will always come when you call.”

Oskar lifted his hands to the mermaid’s face, caressing her cheeks, pushing her hair back, and then covering her ears before he spoke. “IT IS NOT ENOUGH!”

“No, it’s not enough, but for now it’s all we have.”

“I KNOW.” He paused and smiled. His hands still protecting her ears, he said. “YOUR TURN TO SING.”

Harmony smiled. She knew Oskar wasn’t referring to music.

Their second time was full of passion and heat, and they were both panting when it was over, though panting eventually faded into softer, sleepier sounds.

Harmony woke to a full moon and a starlit sky. She stretched her arms and flexed her toes, and, reluctantly, she woke the sleeping thunder god. “I have to go,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

She kissed him three times and then slipped back into the water and began the swim toward home, but his voice called to her under the waves, and she broke the surface to look back toward his ice floe.

Soft snow began to fall like stars that melted into the waves.

Light a fire in my winter’s land

Let me once more feel the warmth of her hand

Lead the way to my paradise

Bitterly cold is my soul

Cold as ice.

 

Notes: Inspired by the song “Som Av Is” (“Cold as Ice”) by Roger Pontare. Song suggested by Berkley Pearl. Photo by Maia Habegger on Unsplash

I Scream

Scream via Flash-Prompt“Excuse me,” I say to my husband’s seven billionth perfumed auntie, one more in a teeming mass of tiny old women with perfectly coiffed gray hair, in outfits from this year’s collection at Chico’s (we will not address how I know that), accessorized with a mix of paste baubles and antique pearls. “The restroom is available. I’ll be back.”

I weave through the crowd of extended family, narrowly avoiding a collision with a six- foot-tall woman in an impossibly small wheelchair.

The bathroom at this funeral parlor is a single stall. Good. It has one of the newer kind of air dryers – the kind that blow hot air with so much force that it pushes around the skin on the back your hands. Even better.

I use the toilet. Do my ‘paperwork,’ – my mother’s term, which I’ve adopted – wash my hands.

I activate the dryer once to dry my hands.

For the second go-round, I turn the nozzle face up, and scream into the roaring, rushing air. I let out my frustration with my husband’s conservative mid-western family, and my grief at the loss of his mother, a woman who went out of her way to learn my tastes and styles, to include me.

I scream for my stoic husband who CANNOT scream because that’s just not how he’s made, and I scream for our grand-nieces and -nephews who will never get to go fishing with Grandma V.

I activate the dryer a third time. And a fourth.

Finally, I turn the nozzle back the other way. I wet some tissue to clean up smeared mascara. I take a deep breath and finger-comb my hair back into some semblance of order.

I leave the sanctuary of the bathroom.

Almost immediately, I encounter my husband’s youngest uncle. The one who did the eulogy. The one with the stupid sense of humor and the contagious zest for life.

Specifically, he plants himself in front of me. “Well, now, I’m a hugger.” It’s the North Dakota version of a drawl.

He’s a wiry man. Compact, like my husband. His arms are surprisingly strong for someone two years past a stroke that left half his body paralyzed – he barely limps now.

His aftershave reminds me of my grandfather, who died when I was twenty-one.

“Dear girl,” he echoes the phrase my father- in-law used hours earlier. “She was so happy when you married her son. We all were.”

I’m teary again – we both are.

My husband’s uncles are from the era when men still carried pocket handkerchiefs. It’s sweet. Endearing. He tugs his from his pocket, and offers it to me, but he needs it more and I have a packet of tissue in my purse.

“Thank you,” I say. Not just for the offered hankie, but for the hug, and the words.

I forgot, you see.

I forgot that I’m not just here to console my husband and his family.

I forgot that I’m allowed to be visibly grieving, too.

Flash-Fiction: Oskar and Harmony

 

 

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_vukvuk'>vukvuk / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

This is an unfinished piece written just before dinner last night. I was working on something different, but related, and this is what happened instead.

 

His arrival was always heralded by raindrops.

He would open with a tease, a tickle. Just a tiny hint of drizzle. If she didn’t immediately rise to meet him, he’d turn up the waterworks, make them into a soaking rain over the place in the sea where sirens dwelt between gigs.

Harmony would lift her face and arms into the cascade of bubbles, give a flick of her tail, and twist and turn in the newly oxygenated water. It was common knowledge that sea creatures got a little giddy during rainstorms, after all.

Spiraling upward through the frothy water, she would break the surface just in time to catch phase three of his greeting to her: a single arc of lightning that sent electricity humming through every fiber of her being.

And there he’d be, floating on a mattress of soft fog, just above the peaks and troughs of her beloved waves, her man. Her god. Oskar. Today he was sporting hair and a beard that matched the slate and granite colors of the rocks that formed her favorite jetty, and eyes that were the same bruised-purple as the sky before a storm.

They didn’t talk much, when they were above. His voice was the sound of a sledge-hammer, booming and forceful. It made the waves break far from shore and scattered fish in all directions.

As to her voice. Harmony was a mermaid. A siren. Her voice was meant to lure sailors to their watery deaths. When she used it on Oskar, she was never sure if he was staying with her because he wanted to, or because her voice was somehow compelling him.

Then again, when they were nested together on his bed of fog, they didn’t really need to speak to communicate, especially once they’d determined how thick the bed had to be before it was considered ‘land’ by the elemental magic that allowed her to split her tail into legs.

But when they were in her world, below the waves, then it was a different story. Her voice had no power over him when they were beneath the waves. And his…

Have you ever been swimming and been surprised by a thunderstorm, or been diving and felt a motorboat go by? That’s a taste of the way Harmony experienced Oskar’s voice underwater: feeling it more than hearing it. It was tangible, a physical grumble that was best appreciated when one of them was draped over the other.

Harmony had never planned to fall in love with a thunder god. The bird and fish who fell in love had it easy compared to Oskar and herself. But when they were together, when she was wrapped in his arms, and he rumbled sweet words to her or she felt his joyous laughter, she knew it was worth figuring out.

Egaeus’s Protege

xrayed teeth

 

“You teach literature don’t you?” The question was casual, conversational.

Her answer was a terrified bobbing of her head, up and down. In her defense, the metal bracket holding her mouth open and her tongue out of the way prevented actual speech.

“You know the Poe story ‘Berenice?'”

Another uncontrolled nod. Spittle formed at the corners of her mouth and he used a clean, white handkerchief to dab it away, then grimaced when he noticed that the bubbles of saliva held traces of blood from the metal cutting into the corners of her mouth. Untidy, that.

“He did it wrong, the man in that story.” He kept the conversation going as he reached for his favorite pliers. Needle-nose, with a cushioned grip. “He waited until she was buried before he went after his prizes. Miraculous that she still had all of them intact, especially considering the general lack of medical care or balanced diets in that era.”

The brunette with the wide brown eyes twisted frantically in her chair, but the zip-ties didn’t have a millimeter of give in them. She was there to stay.

“Grave-digging is such filthy work. Mud and bugs and gore… much easier to choose a live subject.” He leaned over her, pushed stray hair away from her sweat-soaked brow with almost tender care. “This is going to be… extremely painful.”

The pliers closed around his selected target. Smiling as he worked he twisted, tugged… pulled… until his quarry came free, root and all.

“Your dentist must be very good, my dear,” he said to the woman whose screams couldn’t quite make it past her throat. He lowered his voice to a reverent whisper: “You have lovely bicuspids.”

He let the small, white object fall into a metal bowl.

He expected that she’d react to the sound, but his expectation was met with great silence.

She had fainted.

No matter, she would wake soon enough, and they’d begin again. Wash, rinse, repeat, until he had all thirty-two.

Old Egaeus would have been proud.

Image copyright: radub85 / 123RF Stock Photo

Flash-fic: The Rules

monster under the bed

 

“Harry, remember, it’s only your first night. No one expects you to be perfect. Just go, growl, and get out.”

“I know, Mom.”

“Avoid the light… it won’t actually cause you to combust, but it can still hurt you. Remember what happened to Daniel? He was looking up at the closet ceiling when his assigned Child turned the light on. He was bulb-blind for days. Kept bumping into furniture… nearly got caught.”

“Avoid the light,” Harry repeated dutifully. “Got it, Mom.”

“And don’t forget about the Rules.”

“The rules?”

“Harry, we’ve been over this a fafillion times. If the Child is sipping water, they are Protected. If the Child has stuffed animals they are Protected…” His mother saw him roll his eye. “What?”

“The… stuffed animals… they aren’t Real animals, are they?”

“Of course not, Harry. They’re made of plush and foam and fluff.”

“Are you sure? Because Becky said – ”

“Harold M. Puddle, how many times have I told you that your sister makes up these stories just to bait you. The stuffed animals are not Real.”

“Then how can they Protect?”

“Because Children have Imaginations, Harry. And they Believe.”

“I thought Imagination was what we were made of.”

“Well, yes, but…”

“So if they can Believe we are under their beds or in their closets, and  Believe the stuffed animals are Real…” Harry had a scary thought. “Mom? What if they Believe that we aren’t Real?”

“Hush, youngster. You might as well wonder whether dragons really breathe fire. Some things simply Are.”

“Okay.” He straightened his posture and held out his claw-tipped paws. “Do I look fearsome enough?”

“Oh, very much so,” his mother assured. She pulled him close and gave him a slurpy kiss. “I’m so proud of you, Harry. You’re not even eight hundred yet, and you’ve been assigned your own Child. Just don’t forget about the Blankets.”

Harry knew about those, but his eye grew wider anyway. “Mom?”

“It’s the biggest Rule there is. A Child under Blanket Protection must never be touched. If your Child is under Blankets, what do you do?”

“Go, growl, get out,” Harry repeated the advice she’d given him a few minutes before. But he had a question, “What if… what if a Hand or a Foot isn’t Covered?”

“Well, some of the most experienced Monsters sometimes tickle a Child’s Foot or brush their fur against a Child’s Hand, but you shouldn’t try that on your first night. If the Child wakes up, and you get caught you’ll be sent back to remedial hunting. No one wants to spend their entire life chasing Cats and Dogs.”

Harry had met some of the remedial hunters. They ended up patchy and toothless. He definitely didn’t want that. “I promise not to try it… at least not tonight.”

“Good for you, Harry. Now remember, you’re scary, you’re stealthy, and you can make Children scream.”

“I’m scary,” he repeated. “I’m stealthy. And I can make Children scream.”  He took a deep breath. “Okay, Mom… here I go.”

He stepped onto the Ladder that would take him into the Attic and then into the Closet in the Child’s room, repeating it as he went. “Scary. Stealthy. Scream…”

As the Trap Door opened, Harry heard his mother’s voice, “I love you Harry.”

Harry grimaced happily.  I love you, too, Mom, he thought. Here I go.

 

Image copyright: innovatedcaptures / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Diminished

At some point she began talking to the walls.

Really, she said, she was speaking to the former residents of her house, whose shadow-selves had been imprinted thereupon almost like a mural only she could see.

An animated, techni-color mural.

We’re never sure if we should humor her, or try to coax her awareness back to the here and now. The truth is, it’s harder for us than it is for her, because she doesn’t register the devastation on our faces when she fails to recognize us.

“Why aren’t you in school, sweetie?” she asks.
“I’m thirty,” I remind her.